Kelsey Brown is always covered in dirt. She’s been that way her entire life, and because of that, she’s single-handedly breathing life back into Winston-Salem’s rich textile livelihood with the dye plants she grows and harvests.

“I’ve always been interested in where things come from, how things are made, and making my own things,” the 29-year-old says. “I’ve been growing dyes for about 10 years now. From a little dye studio to just growing dyes, to providing dyes as a service to garment makers, we continue to grow.”

Kelsey and her fiancé, Adrian Smith, founded Preservation Dyehouse, a dye-as-a-service business committed to the slow fashion movement and the sustainability of the supply chain supporting it. The company provides healthy alternatives to chemical dyes found in almost all of today’s clothing products.

“Sustainability is huge. We know where things are coming from, we know we’re using the best practices agriculturally, and it’s not hurting — in fact it’s helping — the soil quality,” says Smith, 31. “[Being] transparent, sustainability, craftsmanship and building things by hand, that’s what we like to do.”

The concept is simple: Much of today’s clothing contains a wide variety of materials that are sourced from around the world, including the dyes, which are either natural or synthetic.

The latter tends to be most common. And that’s where Preservation Dyehouse intends to make a change.

“Natural dyes used to be the only dyes used. Synthetic dyes ‘accidentally’ happened, and then for the next 150 years, people sort of forgot about natural dyes,” Smith says.

“The fashion industry is the second largest polluter in the world,” adds Brown. “There are tons of chemicals in a lot of synthetic dyes, and some are heavy metals; a lot of those aren’t going into your clothes, they’re actually going back into the water. It’s super water polluting.”

But times are changing, and more and more people are concerned about the sourcing of goods, from everything from food to textiles. The supply chain is huge, it’s global, and it’s largely secretive.

“One of our biggest values is ‘Transparency’ and once we have one or more farmers growing our dyes, we want to have it so you could go on our website and see where your plants are grown based on the lot number listed on the tag,” Brown says.

Think of it like blockchain for plants.

Red, yellow, blue

It takes dirt, time, water, the right amount of sunlight, and a little TLC to nurture and harvest natural dyes. Luckily, Brown and Smith have all of that down pat.

“The plants we’re focusing on for Preservation Dyehouse are madder, weld, and indigo because they all grow well here and they’re red, yellow, and blue.”

As the primary colors, these three pigments can be combined to form a litany of options for any garment maker. Historically, they’re tried-and-true dyes, says Brown.

“Since we’re concentrating on red, yellow, and blue, we can mix them and get a whole spectrum of color. It’s sustainable,” she says.

The reduction process for indigo (blue) and weld (yellow) is fairly straightforward. Think of a cup of tea; you steep the plant and extract the color in a vat of water, allowing it to reduce until you’ve got your desired shade. Combine it with a mordant, a substance used to fix a dye to fabric, and you’ve got a natural dye.

Madder, however, is the trickier of the three. Because the root is used instead of other plant parts, it takes up to five years to achieve the right thickness and concentration of root.

“It’s about the thickness of your finger or a pencil,” Smith says.

Brown and Smith, who are renovating their new home, currently have a small dyehouse in Winston-Salem, where they grow their own natural dyes. The couple, though, has long-term plans to slowly, over time, build a robust regional supply chain.

Textiles make a comeback

Preservation Dyehouse is one of only a handful of dyehouses in the nation, and hopes to offer dyes as a service to garment makers — especially those in the Carolinas.

“We’re lucky that we’re in the Piedmont because there’s such a rich history of textiles,” Smith says. “Down the line, as we can build our regional supply chain and have all these dyes growing in North Carolina, maybe then we can start working with larger companies.”

Because of the popularity of synthetic dyes — which can be largely credited to the affordability and availability of them thanks to petroleum — the natural dye process has been somewhat forgotten. A small niche of people, such as crafters and artisans, are generally the only market interested in sustainably-sourced dyes.

“Companies don’t really think about it. Garment makers, a lot of the time, are more interested in the cut, sew, and design aspect of it, and they’re not experts at dyeing,” Smith says.

Since it’s almost a lost art, Brown spends a lot of time educating the public — especially the younger generation — on natural dyes, both through volunteer work for the Boys & Girls Club and her job at Arts for Life. The nonprofit is dedicated to supporting people facing serious illness and disability through educational art programs.

“I’m always interested in working with community and educating youth about dyes,” Brown says. “The Children’s Home is doing a project with Authoring in Action where they’re growing dyes and I’m going to be working with them this year and growing the plants they have.”

Brown’s interest has always been geared toward philanthropy, while Smith is a bit more business-oriented. The two make a well-rounded match.

“The companies that we are talking to were smaller clothing brands that are from the Carolinas, and they’re getting their cotton from North Carolina,” says Brown. “They have a really sustainable supply chain already, so working with them on that scale is something I never imagined without Adrian. I am really excited about making dyes more accessible to people.”

Luckily, Winston-Salem provides the perfect foundation for Preservation Dyehouse. A mordant, if you will, to fix the new business endeavor to the city’s roots.

For more information on Preservation Dyehouse and dye as a service, visit preservationdyehouse.com.

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